Judging the job the Knicks did in free agency is not an easy task. How people are reacting is based largely on expectations and how important the optics of losing out to the Brooklyn Nets in free agency might be. But it’s important to look at this from a basketball perspective and give an honest appraisal of where the team could be if everything went right, if everything went wrong and where they wound up.
The conversation starts with admitting failure. Despite the Knicks’ front office constantly preaching a patient approach publicly, they cleared cap space as part of the Kristaps Porzingis trade in order to be in the mix to land two star free agents. (I will take a more comprehensive look at the Porzingis trade at a later date.)
It was the right thing to try to be in that market, but it didn’t work out. There’s no way to know for sure what turned Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard away, but it’s safe to say that the team being terrible with no discernable progress in the win column was a big part of it. Was owner James Dolan an issue? It is fair to say the Nets organization has a better reputation than the Knicks.
Those players were going to go where they wanted to go with the Knicks having little say. Relying on the changing plans of NBA superstars is a risky business. The Knicks being a better team might have swayed them, but there was no way to do that last offseason after Porzingis’ injury and bad contracts filling the payroll. (Yes, team president Steve Mills was responsible for some of those.)
For all these reasons, not landing a star in free agency was a failure, even if not a colossal one. Durant was always the target, with Leonard as a pipe dream. Irving was a potential nice addition, but only as a pairing with Durant. As a solo act? Pass. It was always all about KD.
If Durant had never popped his Achilles tendon in the NBA Finals, the tenor of this column would be very different. I might have just posted a picture of a mushroom cloud. But the Knicks aren’t missing out on four years of Kevin Durant in his peak prime years. They are missing out on a redshirt year, one year of load management and recovery, and two seasons at the ages of 33 and 34. Signing Durant would have still been the right move to make and one I’m still convinced the Knicks would have made if given the opportunity, despite reports that Dolan was hesitant about it.
But it would not have been a move without risk. Even if the Knicks landed Durant and Irving, there was a significant chance Durant would never return to top-five, -10 or even -20 form off his Achilles injury. Irving as a solo act and top player on a team did not go well in Boston. Why would it have gone well with the Knicks? The Nets still scored a humongous win, but their path is not without risk as any Nets fan would tell you.
That’s why missing out on what wasn’t a grand-slam option does not automatically make the Knicks grade an F. It does, however, guarantee it won’t be close to an A. Besides signing Leonard, there was no A-plus move to be made this summer. Fans who acted otherwise or thought it was some kind of guarantee a star was coming thanks to Dolan’s words on the radio a few months ago were fooling themselves.
It was likely that Durant and the other stars had made no decision on where they wanted to go until June, despite media reports indicating otherwise. The NBA playoffs change players’ thinking really fast (especially given what transpired this postseason), and what they might have been leaning toward back in February or March doesn’t mean anything when the music stops and players find their landing spots in July.
In my free-agency preview, the third-most important goal for the Knicks was adding a young, emerging player long-term to help the current young group, with D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle the primary targets. The Knicks got Randle for a reasonable two-year contract with a team option for a third at $21 million per year. He will help the team win games and will try to show he can be part of the core moving forward. With all the Knicks' cap space, it was important that they signed someone like this. With Russell’s sign-and-trade to Golden State, it is unclear whether there was even an opportunity to sign him, and if there had been, it would have had to be a max contract.
The next most important thing on my free-agent list was to use part of the team’s cap space to acquire bad contracts in return for future assets. There were two opportunities to do that with Andre Iguodala, whom the Grizzlies received a first-round pick for, and Maurice Harkless, whom the Clippers got a first-round pick for taking into their cap space. Harkless is a good player, just 26 years old and making $11 million on the final year of his contract. Both would have been great options.
For whatever reason, the Knicks decided not to pursue those options. It was a mistake by Mills and general manager Scott Perry and showed a lack of creativity and patience in using their cap space. This mistake can be righted during the season by trading some of their newly signed players for picks, but you can’t predict that. The final grade gets dinged for this.
The Knicks did, however, sign a number of players who filled their most important needs: shooting, defense and veteran leadership. (I’ll break down each player and what they bring specifically Wednesday.) All of those deals were constructed perfectly, as one-year deals with a team option for a second. Bobby Portis at $15 million a year, Reggie Bullock and Taj Gibson at $10 million, and Wayne Ellington and Elfrid Payton at around $8 million are all perfectly tradeable pieces. They could be used in deals if other teams want to dump salary midseason or need a roleplayer for a playoff run.
One-year contracts with team options for a second maximize flexibility, with the receiving team having a chance to decide whether they want the player beyond one season. If a young Knicks player steps up at a certain position, the Knicks can decline the option on one of their new veterans next summer and open up cap space to either sign a different player or take on a bad contract in exchange for a draft pick. The Knicks can open up $50 million of cap space in 2020 if they desire. It is a weak free-agent class, but the flexibility is there.
The new additions, perhaps most importantly, should help the Knicks win some more games, which is essential to changing their perception (in the eyes of some) around the league from “LOLZ Knicks” to something else all together. The players are far from perfect, but they could get the team to 30 wins and give coach David Fizdale a fighting chance to show how he wants his team to play. New York might actually start looking somewhat attractive again.
The Knicks might have missed opportunities to optimize their cap space, but they made no terrible mistakes that will cripple the franchise, either. If they had picked up a draft pick or two instead of signing Portis and/or Payton, I would give them a solid B. Since they failed in that area, at least for now, they get a C. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t a dumpster fire, either.
It was competent. Is that a low bar? Yes. But the Knicks have to start somewhere, and right now they are still near the bottom. This offseason could be the first step toward a better place, and a brighter future, even if it may take some time.